Gliding as the sky turned dark, I widened my lens from the road ahead, scanning for any decent spots to tent alongside the highway that night. Earlier in the day, I’d put the Okanagan into my rearview and rejoined the Trans-Canada. I had changed course, turning away from the north to travel eastward, approaching the next mountain pass. A successful feeling.
Progress, I suppose.
Progress. I still felt unsettled by the old woman from that nameless town. Felt pulled to the tree with the roots exposed in Hope, too. Roars echoed within. At first, I felt emboldened by these meaningful breakthroughs. But, now, their waves crashed into each other, muddling my thoughts without any semblance of clarity. Nothing coalesced. I felt off-centered, an unexpected shift from the physical journey I wasn’t quite ready to embrace.
About thirty kilometers east of Sicamous, I happened upon a campground. From the highway, the place looked like an extended backyard surrounding a small house in the center. Zero tenants.
I remained hesitant to embrace the vast, surrounding wilderness I could have occupied for free. Still, I preferred the comforts of order and boundaries, even if this familiar choice cost more. Better the wilderness you know than the wilderness you don’t. Old habits burned brighter on these unfamiliar roads.
I rolled off the highway and stopped in front of the house, letting down Sonja gently to the gravelly laneway.
I wandered around the back of the house. In the backyard, I spotted the gruff silhouette of someone sitting aside a fire.
As I approached, the silhouette proved to be an unkempt, lumberjack-looking man, smoking a forty-five-minute cigar in a lawn chair far undersized for his large frame.
The lumberjack briefly glanced my way without turning his head. As I unlocked our connection, he narrowed his eyes to the firelight.
Do you work here?
My question was greeted with a silent assurance. A slight, affirmative nod. No eye-contact.
Can I camp here for the night?
The man drew an easy drag, then pointed his cigar-holding hand to the dark space behind.
Take any site. Nothing’s occupied.
Look around. Let me know which one you like.
I thanked the lumberjack and moved to explore the modest grounds. As I walked away from the fire, into the cooler evening air, the lumberjack disappeared through the screened backdoor. Cigar smoke lazily rose from the grass beside his lawn chair.
Nearly every site looked roughly the same: grassy, flat, and open. After a few quiet minutes in the dark, I silently opted for a spot near a picnic table. I offered a slight, affirmative nod of assurance in its direction.
When I returned to the fire, the lumberjack remained out of sight. I stood in the warming glow, alone. My eyes transfixed on the flames as I calculated the situation.
Is this campground open? He didn’t mention any price.
Should I ask? Could I camp for free?
The lumberjack reemerged from the house, carrying an arms-load of chopped wood. He dropped them waist-high into a pile near my side. He picked up his cigar and slouched into the lawn chair. Still no eye contact, all the while.
He was clearly the one tuning the mood here. I was passing through his scene. I could feel it. No control, yet I hadn’t surrendered. I wouldn’t. The lumberjack seemed to hold all measures of authority in our connection. Whether he was somber, angry, or indifferent, I couldn’t begin to decipher. I struggled to find my place.
Should I try to camp for free?
I proved unfit for the challenge. Before I could stop the words from escaping, I reflexively asked how much he charged. Too polite.
In mid-drag, silence reigned. Then, a heavy, smoke-laden sigh. I could feel his mind settling to an answer.
A minor wave of disappointment washed over within, no matter how cheap the price. Could’ve camped for free. I felt wronged, somehow. Belittled, even. I realized the campground likely wasn’t open for the night.
In a spurt of undue rebellion, I resolved to limit the damage. I felt the need to enforce some measure of control. Assert my place in this scene.
I rustled through my handlebar bag for cash, ignoring the twenty-dollar bill inside. I offered him a fiver and a handful of coins. The total must have amounted to little more than seven dollars.
This is all I’ve got.
My host accepted, holding out his hand to retrieve his payment, never lifting his gaze. There it is. Indifference. Or, annoyance. Who knows. I give in.
As I turned to the dark, the lumberjack advised to camp under a tree, to avoid the morning frost. During our entire exchange, the man’s eyes never locked with mine.
I rolled away, pondering the roots of his story. What he was seeing in those flames. I looked back once more. The lumberjack was lingering on another long drag, his eyes blinded to all else, except the fire’s warm glow.